Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

How Peer Review is Used to Shut Down Debate

Some inhabitants of the Ivory Tower are using peer review – a process that helps scholarly journals decide what to print – as a shield to hide behind. Delegitimizing public input about publicly-funded science is arrogant and counterproductive.


It’s important to be clear about what peer review does and doesn’t do because some scientists try to use it to shut down public debate.

Exhibit A is a news story the New York Times ran in May titled “How Big Are Those Killer Asteroids? A Critic Says NASA Doesn’t Know.” It’s about Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive and numbers whiz. He thinks some of the asteroid data being collected by taxpayer-funded NASA is irreproducible  and “all basically wrong.”

Amy Mainzer, NASA’s principal investigator for the projects, declined to be interviewed in person. At the end of the article, we’re told she answered only some of the written questions posed by the Times, advising the journalist:

“We believe at this point it’s best to allow the process of peer review — the foundation of the scientific process — to move forward,” she wrote.

As my new report on peer review explains, much good science was done, discussed, and published well before peer review was ever invented:

As Melinda Baldwin, the author of a book about Nature, has observed, ‘many of the most influential texts in the history of science were never put through the peer review process, including Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica, Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA’. In fact, she says, ‘Nature published some papers without peer review up until 1973.’

Peer review is absolutely not the “foundation of the scientific process.” It’s merely a tool used by academic publishers – as well as a shield that some scientists hide behind when their work gets challenged.

Mainzer has company, as Exhibit B demonstrates. In August, climate scientist Michael Mann, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, and a couple of other people published a paper titled “Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism.” Near the end of this paper, we find Appendix A: Proposed Guidelines for Critical Scientific Engagement by Members of the Public. That document begins:

Jane Q. Public believes to have discovered [sic] an error in Dr. A’s work, or she has an alternative account of a previously published finding, or an original idea suitable for publication. The research area is highly contested. How should Ms. Public proceed?

Yep, you read that right. Academics (public servants) are currently paid by taxpayers so they can sit around drawing up rules about how taxpayers should behave. Funders getting bossed around by those they fund. Some people really have no sense of decency.

So what’s the very first bit of advice doctors Mann and Lewandowsky give Jane Q. Public?

If your goal is to contribute to a scientific conversation, then you need to follow certain rules. One of those rules is that scientific arguments are conducted in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. If you are unwilling to do so, these guidelines are of little value. [bold added]

Allow me to rephrase that. We academics think we’re super special. We think the knowledge we create is super special. Don’t imagine for a moment that you’re our equals. Challenges to our knowledge can only occur in one place: on territory controlled by us, aka within the pages of academic journals.

Sometimes it really does feel as though the world has gone bonkers. Educate yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated. Make sure you understand what peer review actually is – and what it isn’t.

Download my 40-page report here. A quicker, shorter version, published by Australia’s MercatorNet, is here.



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This entry was posted on November 1, 2016 by in ethical & philosophical, free speech, peer-review and tagged , , , .
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